This is a blog post/interview I wrote in 2010 for the Tasty Image chocolate franchise.
Felix, Simon (age 9), and Ada Swerdlow at their home in Mozyr, Belarus in February 1986, just two months before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Simon Swerdlow, 13, was about to board a plane for the first time in his life. He thought that this trip, like the summer vacations he had taken with his parents and his brother Igor, would be an adventure. “I was excited,” he said, “but also nervous because this would be my first time traveling alone. And I had no return ticket. That was scary.”
The year was 1990, and 250 children were boarding the first international evacuation flight taking children out of the radioactive zones around Chernobyl, four years after the nuclear disaster occurred.
When the children and their parents arrived at Minsk Airport, they found an airstrip and an unfinished construction site. “We were stranded there for three days,” said Simon. “My parents had no luggage, we had no blankets. People were sleeping on concrete. The bathrooms were unfinished. The organizers brought us food from the city and they did their best, but it was random stuff. A banana, an egg, some juice.”
As Simon was about to board an old Romanian airliner, he turned and looked back at the airport. His parents had climbed the bulwarks of the unfinished airport building to reach the top deck and were gazing down at him from behind glass panes. They lifted their hands in farewell.
Twenty-five years later, Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl is still bringing children out of the affected zones to receive medical care not available in the former Soviet Union.On April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a series of explosions triggered by uncontrolled power surges, and the resulting fires sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke and fallout over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe, with an estimated 60% of the fallout landing in the Belarus region.
“We kids didn’t even know how bad it was. But our parents knew. Because almost every doctor and scientist in our town left with his family. They took no clothes or luggage. They said goodbye to no one. They took their wallets and their families and they disappeared.”
A Childhood Before Chernobyl
Simon’s father, Felix, was a military officer and his mother, Ada, was an English teacher. The family lived in Mozyr, a town on the banks of the Pripyat River. “We had long summer breaks,” recalls Simon, “and so the whole family would get on a train and we would just travel. Anywhere we wanted to go. Often the seashore, but sometimes to big cities like St. Petersberg or Moscow to see museums. We would travel to the southern republics to lay on the beach and eat fresh fruit—it would be like going from New York to Florida. We didn’t really plan anything, we would just go. We would stay in each place for a few days and then go on. All summer long. It was fun.”
Trains were the major source of transportation, and for many families, the only readily available mode of travel.
“My brother and I were constantly arguing. Who got the upper bunk, how many cars in each freight train, where to stop. We definitely drove our parents nuts.”
Simon remembers his mother as being a very good cook. “She would often work twelve hour days,” he recalls. “Our school had two shifts, because there was not enough capacity, and far more students than teachers, particularly teachers skilled in English. So she would work both shifts, and then come home and bake pastries. Students would come by our house, just to be invited in for treats. My friends all knew she was a very good cook, so they would come even when I wasn’t home. ‘But Simon is not home,’ she would say. They’d respond, ‘It doesn’t matter!’ Anything we wanted, cookies, pizza, whatever, she would make for us.”
Simon preferred soccer and chess to classes, but enjoyed math. “It was logical and didn’t require too much homework,” he laughs. He would always sit in the very back of his math class and finish his tests quickly, then finish his friends’ tests as well. Students’ desks were paired and they were given alternating tests to prevent cheating. But Simon devised a system of signals using pens. His signals said, in effect, “I’m busy on my own test,” or “I’m available, pass your test.”
“My mother and I walked together to school, and my mother could never be late, but I was always behind, half-awake. She would say, ‘Hurry up, Simon’, but I was like, really mom, school is nothing to hurry for.”
Simon recalls that although he got good grades in school, he was a bit of a hellion. “When I was ten, my friend Anton and I stole the teacher’s grade book and set it on fire. Why? Who knows! My mother was punished for it and had to reconstruct the grade book from all the student slips for the whole year. I felt terrible.”
“My father would take me to my room and say, ‘I promised your mother you will have discipline. So I want you to yell and cry when I do this.’ And then he would slap his wrist and I would pretend to cry. Then he would say, ‘Now I must go and really punish your older brother for he is really responsible.’ I would always feel relieved but also very bad for getting my brother into trouble. Years later Igor and I compared notes and discovered that neither one of us was ever physically punished.”
Escaping the Dead Zone
By the time of the accident at Chernobyl, Simon’s brother Igor, who was five years older, was in the army and not eligible for emigration. Simon’s father, a military officer, also could not leave the area.
“The local Communist Party Committee humiliated and ostracized the families of those who had abandoned our neighborhoods,” said Simon. “They would publicly embarrass men and say things like, ‘Your brother is a coward. A traitor. He ran away and abandoned his people. He disobeyed the Party. Are you a coward too?”
“Teachers were commanded to submit daily lists of children not attending. Some were sick, but some families just left. The Communist Party wanted to prevent panic by preventing families from leaving so they would humiliate and threaten the relatives of anyone who left. So people were afraid to leave.”
“But at the same time, they offered a reward to anyone who would plant the Soviet flag at the top of the damaged reactor. A young soldier volunteered, and he died almost immediately afterward. They have no respect for human life. We are all like vermin to them.”
Simon’s parents, aware of the dangers of radioactive fallout, began a campaign to send him out when they heard of the first rescue flight, which was organized by Rabbi Yossi Raichik in the village of Kfar Chabad in Israel. The organization had taken over an abandoned hotel and turned it into a school, medical facility and dormitories.
“Leaving the USSR was not so easy,” explains Simon. “Even today it is difficult. You must have more than a passport, you must have a letter of permission to leave first.”
“I didn’t understand it completely. I knew the radiation was dangerous, and that something was wrong, but my parents made it sound like an adventure, like going to a health camp. My mother gave me a little cassette player the night before. I was so excited, but I was also nervous because I didn’t know how everything was going to unfold—when I would see my parents again, and my friends like Anton.”
On the day of his departure, Simon’s parents escorted him to a town square in Mozyr where buses were waiting to transport the children to an airport in Minsk. The organizers announced that extra buses were also available for parents who wanted to come along. At age 13, Simon was one of the older children in the group of 250, whose ages ranged from 6 to 17. Youthful counselors aged 18-22 from the children’s home towns also accompanied the group.
“My parents had no idea that they would be able to come,” said Simon, “but they didn’t hesitate. They had no luggage, nothing, but they said yes, we’re coming.” Dozens of other parents also chose to accompany their children, swelling the ranks of the group to over 500 people.
No Planes in Sight
However, when the buses arrived in Minsk, they found an airstrip and little else. The mammoth Minsk airport was an unfinished construction site. “There were concrete floors and walls, some glass panes, some unfinished kiosks, and little else,” recalls Simon.
There were no planes awaiting the children.
Apparently the Soviet bureaucracy had some last minute doubts about releasing 250 minors to Israeli caretakers. “We were told the planes would be there in four hours. Then another four, then the next day …”
The wait turned into a three-day ordeal for the children and their families.
Minsk Airport, in an undated photograph
The organizers made repeated pleas to the Soviet government by phone but were ignored. The organizers contacted British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell and begged him for help. Maxwell was born in the Ukraine and emigrated to England at the age of 17; he had friendly ties with the Israelis and also had political connections to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the Soviet Union.
Maxwell procured pilots and two old rickety planes from a Romanian airline and somehow greased the wheels of bureaucracy with diplomatic oil. By the end of the third day, the planes had arrived and boarded the children.
Simon turned and looked behind him, surprised to see that his parents had somehow scaled the exterior of the unfinished building and were standing behind the viewing panes on the top deck. Simon thought it was awesome. Ada and Felix privately feared they might never see their 13-year-old son again.
Bombs Over Kuwait
Mid-flight, the planes were abruptly re-routed to London. Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. The invasion started on August 2, 1990, and quickly escalated into two days of intense combat, during which most of the Kuwaiti Armed Forces were either overrun by the Iraqi Republican Guard or escaped to neighboring Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“I would love to know how that conversation went down,” chuckled Simon. “How do you call up a plane and tell the unsuspecting pilots they are flying 250 children into a hot war zone?”
“We were relieved and happy to hear that we were going to London,” he said. “We were just kids, and we had been taught that the Israelis were imperialist scum. We knew nothing about the country or language. But we knew about England; we had studied its geography, and some of us knew the language. So we were very excited to see London.”
Airport security and local constabulary offered to help the counselors corral their excited children, who were confined to the airport until further flights to Israel were declared safe. “We exchanged some money at the airport kiosks,” said Simon, “so each kid had the equivalent of about $16 US to spend and we all went crazy for sodas. But in Russia, soda pop came in glass bottles, which were always returned for a refund. Here, soda was sold in cans. We all thought we could spend our money on soda and still get refunds. So we were constantly trying to return the cans for money. To distract us, the local policemen and policewomen took us to the video arcades and helped us play the games. If we didn’t understand the instructions, they would show us what to do and they would give us the tokens they won. We all thought England was a wonderful place.”
Eventually the planes departed again for Israel, filled with slightly sugar-crazed, exhausted children.
Welcome to Chabad
Hours later, the children arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport to a crowd dancing on the tarmac. They held shields saying “Brothers and Sisters of Chernobyl, Welcome to Kfar Chabad,” the children’s new home, a village not far from the airport.
“It was thrilling, but also a little terrifying,” recalls Simon. “As children we had been taught to be careful of strangers of course, and here people were grabbing our hands and pulling us into a circle to dance. We thought maybe they were all crazy.”
The children were settled into dormitories with counselors from their home towns. “That made us much more at ease,” said Simon. “Our counselors made us feel at home, and gave us a sense of connection to our families and friends.”
In Soviet Russia, Simon’s family were not allowed to practice the Jewish faith. Until arriving in Kfar Chabad, Simon had never heard Hebrew songs, poetry or stories. “Kfar Chabad welcomed us like lost siblings,” he said. “There were celebrations and holidays that we had never heard of. Toys and traditions. Everything was joyful.”
Everything was not, however, peaceful as the war between Iraq and Kuwait continued after the initial hostilities, affecting the entire region.
“Missiles would fly over the school,” said Simon, “and we would be literally grabbed out of our beds half-awake and dragged down the stairs into the bomb shelters. We had to wear gas masks for fear of bio-terrorism. Our counselors and teachers would sing songs and tell stories until it was safe to go back to bed.”
When the missile attacks occurred in day time, Simon said the children would rush to the windows to watch. “I was terrible,” he giggled. “I would mimic the sound to scare the younger children. But then one day a missile landed in the orange grove next to the school and blew it to bits. We didn’t think it was so funny after that.”
A New Beginning
Simon Swerdlow now lives in Florida and continues to support the efforts of Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl.
Since the first evacuation in 1990, Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl has sponsored over 95 evacuation flights, rescued over 2,700 children and reunited many of them with their families. Simon Swerdlow is now age 34 and CEO of Tasty Image, an international chocolate franchise based in New York and Florida. He is happily married with a six-year-old daughter and reunited with his family, who now live in the United States. Swerdlow is multi-lingual, speaking Russian, Spanish, Hebrew and English and he heads up an international team of creative artists, marketers and chocolatiers.
“I owe my life to Chabad,” he says. “It gave me a second birth, a new life.”